Friday, January 18, 2013

Lance Armstrong, Professional Athletes, and Authentic Role Models

Much is being made about Lance Armstrong’s long awaited admission and confession that he doped during his Tour de France victories, and by doing so, he gave himself an advantage over his opponents that most likely won him each of his seven titles. Of course, on top of his cheating, he has denied these charges over and over again, even though the evidence was sufficient enough to convince most people that he did indeed take banned substances to enhance his performance.
Reactions are strong to Armstrong’s answers he gave to Oprah Winfrey, and it certainly is a terrible thing that he has done. Perhaps his actions did hurt many people, especially those close to him, but do we, as a collective society, need to forgive Armstrong? Do I need to forgive him?
My answer is no. I have nothing for which to forgive Armstrong. Yes, he is a public figure, and he was a sports hero, but his “sin” is not against me. In fact, I don’t really care that he cheated in the first place. I’m not being flippant about his actions, and I am certainly not for withholding forgiveness, but his cheating and then lying about it does not affect me in the least.
Some would push back, however, pointing out that because he is a public figure and he was a sports hero, then he was a role model to millions. Perhaps to some he was, but they are misguided in looking to him or any other athlete for what it means to be good.  As Charles Barkley rightly stated in a Nike commercial, “I am not a role model.” Athletes are not those to whom we look for moral guidance and integrity.

Indeed, though we put sports figures up on pedestals as modern day demigods, we all know too well that they are just as susceptible to the failures to which all of us are vulnerable, and perhaps even more so given that their lives are ensconced in imperviousness.
Even the “squeaky-clean” athletes, those that never get into trouble, don’t meet the criteria of necessarily being role models. For sure, their lives represent to our young people better examples of what it means to be a person of integrity than do those figures we hear about on the news for their indiscretions, but perhaps their goodness is so bright due to the darkness that seems to surround professional and collegiate sports.

Big deals are made about these “good guys” because they give money to charity or visit sick kids in hospitals or any number acts of service they might perform. Does this make them true role models? To me, the answer is no.
In fact, one could argue that those athletes who do more good than bad, though they seem to be acting with great sincerity and character, are only known to do these things by virtue of the fortunes that have come upon them because of their ability to do great things on the field or court of competition. To some extent, we might say that because they are star athletes who have been given much, then much is required of them, which, in my mind does not constitute what it means to be a role model.

So, are there role models in our world? For sure there are; but these, though known by many, lived lives that most of us would not think of following. While many of us would desire to be the famous athlete or Hollywood star, most of us would not set as our life goals to model our lives after these authentic role models.
Who are they? There are definitely too many to name, and many are unknown, but to start I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Óscar Romero, and Mother Teresa.      
Each of these, and many others, including those unknown by most of us, although not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, represent the idea of what a role model for humanity means. In different contexts and in different ways their lives were given in complete and utter service to the poor and oppressed, to the outcasts and the disenfranchised, and to the cause of justice and peace through non-violent resistance and action.
These were not people who had fame and fortune and then offered service to others. No, their vocations were that of service toward others, and that is what makes them authentic role models.
I have no hope that our culture will ever turn from its idolatry to people of fame, particularly athletes and move stars, even though many of those we place up on pedestals fall. But maybe as we consider the failures of these famous people we idolize, and as we come to grips with our own failures, we might also reconsider what it means to be human; that the essence of true humanity is not about reaching heights of fame, but it is about denying oneself and living lives of self-sacrifice for others. 

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